Published On: Fri, May 4th, 2018

Celtics perfected game plan to shut down Simmons … for now

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The Philadelphia 76ers are in an 0-2 series deficit because the Boston Celtics have put the clamps on Ben Simmons.

There are other factors at play, such as Philadelphia’s cold 3-point shooting, but that comes secondary to the total lack of production from its point guard. Simmons scored one measly point in Game 2, and he’s failed to create much for others, as evidenced by his 12 turnovers against 13 assists in the series.

Philadelphia cannot withstand such poor performances from Simmons because he’s the conductor of its motion offense. Simmons has received 191 touches in the 73 minutes he’s played this series – a higher per-minute rate than the infamously ball-dominant Russell Westbrook – and he’s produced just 0.099 points per touch, which puts his playoff productivity somewhere around Ed Davis (0.103) and Matthew Dellavedova (0.083).

Simmons insisted after Game 2 that his struggles were “self-inflicted” and that it wasn’t a product of Boston’s defense. Rather arrogantly, Simmons is saying that the Celtics aren’t doing something completely out-of-the-box against him.

Boston, however, is executing its game plan to perfection, and for the moment, Simmons doesn’t have a counter.

Don’t let Simmons explode

The biggest challenge of guarding Simmons is discipline.

He’s a 6-foot-10 athletic marvel with the handle to navigate to any spot on the floor, and so there’s always a tendency to help in the paint because he’s so explosive. That makes him especially dangerous in transition and pick-and-roll scenarios because he reads the game faster than most in moments of chaos. If you double him, he will find the open shooter.

The Celtics have succeeded in guarding Simmons because they’re disciplined under pressure, and that’s a credit to head coach Brad Stevens. Boston has met Simmons early in transition to entice him to pick up his dribble, while also limiting his attempts by committing just 14 live-ball turnovers. In the halfcourt setting, the Celtics have meticulously walled off Simmons without sending extra bodies in both transition and in the paint.

The Celtics are also preying on Simmons’ inability to shoot. They’re regularly sagging a defender completely off the ball, taking away any post-up action, and daring him to drive into a defender in the paint.

The end result is that Simmons isn’t being allowed to drive-and-kick, which is what he does best, and that’s forcing him into his secondary options.

Hold him in post in single coverage

The other way Simmons likes to operate is through the post. He’s effective as a passer and he can also bully smaller players down low, but again, the Celtics have executed their defense to perfection.

Philadelphia loves to give Simmons the ball on one side of the floor, and clear the weak side for off-ball screens to free up shooters. However, nobody is wiggling free because the Celtics have been physical in their coverage by putting longer and stronger defenders to face both J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli. Boston also has the added flexibility of being able to switch when necessary since it regularly deploys a litany of like-sized wings.

When Simmons looks to score in the post, the Celtics have made him work for every inch, as shown in the play below. Simmons sets up early for good post position, but Jaylen Brown uses his strength to dislodge him.

By the time the ball was entered into Simmons, Brown had pushed him entirely out of the post into a relatively harmless area of the floor.

Simmons has also run into one of the league’s toughest defenders in Al Horford, who has held Simmons to just two points on 1-of-5 shooting when he’s guarded him. Horford is strong enough to not allow Simmons to go through him, he’s long enough to contest Simmons’ trusty hook shot without jumping, and he’s quick enough to move laterally on his drives to the hoop.

However, star players find a way

All that being said, this is nothing new for Simmons. Teams have defended him in similar ways all season, and Simmons still averaged 18 points, 10.6 rebounds, and nine assists, while shooting 50 percent from the floor in Round 1.

Philadelphia will come up with counters to give Simmons some room. For example, the Sixers could run Simmons off the ball to start possessions, have him set screens for a shooter, and potentially create a mismatch for him to exploit in the post. They could also run more dribble hand-off actions for a 2-on-1 advantage to exploit Simmons’ defender sagging back so far.

What separates good players and great ones is their ability to adjust, and that leap can only be made through experience. Even LeBron James struggled in 2011 when faced with a zone defense, but he expanded his range, developed a devastating post game, and he’s been completely unstoppable ever since.

Even if Simmons can’t figure it out before the end of the series, this experience against Boston has given him something to work on for the offseason and beyond.

(Photos courtesy: NBA League Pass)

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